An Entrepreneurial Force
Four companies emerge from the second graduating cohort of Tandon's Veteran Entrepreneur Training program
Unless you’re a military history buff, you might not have heard of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, but chances are you know it by its more informal name: the GI Bill. Within a decade of its establishment, some 10 million veterans had benefitted from the bill’s education and training provisions, and today, military members can still receive GI Bill benefits to help them earn college degrees.
New York University is currently home to hundreds of students who have served in the armed forces, and many take part in the NYU Military Alliance, a club headed by Nina Vizcarrondo and Rishi Soneja, both of whom are Food Studies majors at Steinhardt. Vizcarrondo had been a U.S. Coast Guard chef, and Soneja, a field artillery soldier, was widely known as the guy in the barracks who could work wonders with a hot plate and a few simple ingredients; because of their shared interest in culinary arts, they were excited to learn of the Veteran Entrepreneur Training (VET) program, developed by the Tandon School of Engineering Incubators, in partnership with the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and supported by Brooklyn Assemblyman Joseph Lentol.
The 10-week program was established in 2015 to provide support for those who wanted to transition from military life to the startup ecosystem, and the two wondered if they could come up with a viable food- or beverage-related business to launch. Accepted into the VET program, they teamed with two other participants, George West and Blair Johnson, and embarked on an intensive series of classes, lectures, workshops, and field trips designed to familiarize them with customer discovery, prototyping, legal issues, business models, and more.
“Working with Nina has been a real inspiration to me,” Soneja says. “And now that we’ve completed the VET program, I feel that we all definitely have the tools and knowledge that will ensure our success.” The quartet is currently in the process of incorporating the business they came up with during the program: Citi Brew. Vizcarrondo compares their new company to the wildly popular Birchbox, which delivers a curated box of beauty products to its subscribers each month; similarly, Citi Brew intends to deliver a carefully chosen selection of locally brewed craft beers — a service the four hope will be equally popular with consumers.
In addition to Citi Brew, three other fledgling companies have emerged from the second graduating cohort of the VET program, including:
Launched by Navy veterans Troy Barrett, Laura Cabrera, and Kyle Makinen
There was no prohibition against mingling with members of other service branches, but at the kick-off to this year’s VET program, Cabrera, Makinen, and Barrett gravitated towards each other. Their shared Navy background was a strong source of connection, but their shared frustration at the state of the nation’s educational system was even stronger. “The system is broken,” they say. “There is a lack resources, too much standardized testing, and no centralized place for parents to go to get vital information and support.”
Seeking to change that, the team launched a Web platform they call Aerie (named with the idea that adult birds fly from their nests and bring back what their children need). Aimed at families looking for educational alternatives, the platform, which includes creative and personalized curriculum options as well as a parent marketplace, may eventually expand to encompass the needs of distance learners, military children, students with illnesses that interfere with their educations, and others.
The trio may never have met without the VET program and would certainly not have gotten Aerie off the ground, they admit. “As members of the military, we already knew how to get things done through teamwork and cooperation,” they say, “but the VET program gave us the nuts-and-bolts tools and knowledge to become entrepreneurs. It gave us an understanding of just how hard running a business is — but also just how rewarding it can be.”
Energy Economic Development
Launched by West Point grad, former infantryman, and ROTC instructor James Hendon
Soon after starting the VET program, James Hendon realized the commonalities between his former life and the path on which he was embarking. “Being a young entrepreneur can feel like being in a foxhole,” he says. “But our instructors and mentors are right there with us, so that’s an enormous help.”
Hendon’s brainchild is Energy Economic Development, a company that will seek to help large and small entities reduce their carbon footprints. The company will promote community scale renewable energy consumption on the large end while managing energy efficiency retrofit projects on the smaller level. “There’s no reason for a group of consumers to only take the electricity and gas blends that are automatically offered to them,” he explains. “If a municipality uses its purchasing power, it can be a win-win for both end users and the environment.” Hendon also envisions connecting small stakeholders with engineers, contractors, and financiers who can help them retrofit their businesses for maximum energy efficiency.
“I’ve always felt that it was important for me to give back to my country in some way,” Hendon says. “I see Energy Economic Development as a way to continue my service, just in another capacity, so I’m grateful to the VET program at Tandon for giving me that opportunity.”
Launched by Monique Porter and Chi Kwok
When Chi Kwok studied at the School of Engineering in the late 1990s, little did he know that he’d be returning almost two decades later, after a long stint in the military. Soon after he arrived back in Brooklyn, he applied for re-admittance to finish his degree at the Tandon School of Engineering, where he used his veteran educational benefits to major in Business Technology Management. He subsequently joined the NYU Military Alliance, found out about the VET program, and teamed up with fellow veteran Monique Porter. They are launching a new venture, Thermo Clear, aimed at homeowners seeking to avoid ice damage to their roofs.
Their product, which had been originally conceived some years ago by a fellow veteran of Monique Porter’s acquaintance named Carlos Cole, employs the same technology used in rear-window defrosters — scaled up in size — to melt the snow and ice dams that can accumulate and severely damage gutters and other structural elements. They’ve applied for a patent — a process they learned about during the VET program — and envision marketing spin-off products in the future. “We realize that in business we are going to hit an occasional wall,” Kwok says. “But as veterans, we’re used to tackling walls.
The program will return later this year with a third cohort. Thanks to the many partners and supporters of the program, each of the fledgling companies is being granted three months of office space at NYU Tandon's DUMBO incubator to ensure they are given a soft landing out of the program. “That’s an invaluable resource, particularly in New York City’s expensive real-estate market,” Hendon says. The participants universally agree, however, that even free office space can’t compete with the main benefit of the VET program — the chance to work alongside fellow veterans and incubator startups who are always sure to always have your back.
Thanks in part to their demanding military training, members of NYU’s Military Alliance are exceptionally focused and dedicated students. Even they need to relax and unwind on occasion, however. They had their chance on April 10, when the group hosted its first-ever Veterans Ball, which attracted some 100 attendees for dinner, dancing, photo booths, and more. In the midst of the festivities, members of the Military Alliance took the time to honor NYU Tandon School of Engineering for the support given to them during the VET program.